Clarifying the Nature and Significance of Eugenio Pacelli's Pontificate

Author: Giovanni Maria Vian

Clarifying the Nature and Significance of Eugenio Pacelli's Pontificate

Giovanni Maria Vian

Defending Pius XII Rediscovering the historical truth

Pius XII? A distant Pope whose features are either so faded as to be no longer recognizable or, on the contrary, take on an overworked outline because they have been distorted by a polemical representation so bitter as to have obscured the historical reality.

This is the image of Eugenio Pacelli that prevails today, a man elected to the See of Peter on the eve of the last World War. It was the singular destiny of the first Pontiff to be born in Rome, who, on the path opened to him by his Predecessor, became popular and wholly visible throughout the world. This was thanks to the incipient, tumultuous age of modernity, and also to the new means of communication, which the Pope from Rome desired and knew how to utilize: from his repeated trips — which took him to Europe and America as a diplomat and as Secretary of State — to the innovation of radio messages; from the large public manifestations to the covers of magazines; from the cinema to a form of media like television, at that time just dawning and destined for great success.

His own was a destiny even more unique when one considers, then, the authority for which he was generally recognized during his lifetime and the almost unanimous positive judgments at the time of his death but a half century ago in 1958.

How then, did this near destruction of his image come about, which furthermore happened in the space of only a few years, more or less beginning in 1963? There are two primary motives.

The first lies in the difficult political choices which Pius XII made, from the start of his Pontificate, then during the tragedy of war and finally at the time of the Cold War. The line taken by the Pope and the Holy See throughout the years of conflict had always opposed totalitarianism but was traditionally neutral, yet events show it instead to have been in favour of the anti-Hitler alliance, and characterized by an unprecedented humanitarian effort that saved a great many lives. This policy was, however, anti-Communist, and for this reason, already during the war, Soviet propaganda had begun to tag the Pope as an accomplice of Nazism and its horrors.

The second reason was the accession of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, his Successor. Well before the Conclave, Roncalli had — mainly due to his advanced age — already been identified as a candidate (and, once elected Pope) to be considered "transitional". But very early on he was acclaimed as "the good Pope", and was always placed without attenuation in contrast to his Predecessor: not only for his radically different style and character, but also for his unexpected and clamorous decision to convoke a Council.

The principal elements that explain the change in Pope Pius XII's image, therefore, are his anti-Communist stance and his contraposition with John XXIII. It was a comparison that became accentuated especially after the latter's death and the election of Giovanni Battista Montini  (Paul VI), and also because it was furthered by the contrasting polarization between conservatives and progressives at the time of the Second Vatican Council, which were then transformed into opposing symbols of the two late Popes. Meanwhile, in the relaunching of Soviet and Communist accusations — repeated insistently during the Cold War — Rolf Hochhuth's play Der Stellvertreter (The Vicar) ended up playing a decisive role. It was performed for the first time in Berlin on 20 February 1963 and completely centred on the silence of the Pope, depicting him as indifferent before the persecution and extermination of the Jews.

In the face of the extension of this polemic in England, it was Cardinal Montini — formerly Pacelli's close collaborator — who took up Pius XII's defence with a letter to The Tablet, a Catholic magazine. The letter reached the press on the day of his election to the Papacy, 21 June, and was also published in L'Osservatore Romano on 29 June 1963.

"This attitude of condemnation and protest, for the absence of which the Pope is being reproached, would not only have been futile, it would also have been dangerous. That's all". Montini's closing words are stern and carefully chosen: "Subjects like these and historic people we know should not be played with through the creative imagination of playwrights, who are lacking in historic discernment and, God help us, human honesty. Otherwise, just like in the present case, the drama would he another: that of someone trying to offload the horrible crimes of German Nazism onto a Pope who was extremely conscientious in his duties and aware of history, and who in the opinion of more than one friend was certainly impartial; but also very loyal to the German people. Equally, Pius XII had the merit of having been a 'Vicar' of Christ who tried to fulfil his mission as best he could with courage and integrity. Could the same thing be said of this theatrical injustice, in the context of culture and art?".

As Pope, Montini would return several times to the topic of Pacelli, whose work for peace and whose "venerable memory" he wished to defend. He did just that on 5 June 1964 while taking his leave of the Israeli President in Jerusalem, as the Cardinal Dean Eugène Tisserant lit six lanterns in remembrance of thousands of exterminated Jews within the shrine dedicated to victims of the Nazi persecution. When "Paul VI set foot on Israeli ground, in what was the most significant and 'revolutionary' step of his Palestinian mission, everyone could tell that the Pope wanted to respond to the systematic attacks from the communist world, which had managed to find complicity or indulgence even in Catholic hearts", wrote Giovanni Spadolini in Il Resto del Carlino (Bologna's daily newspaper) on 18 February 1965, following the first performances of Hochhuth's play in Rome and the consequent heated debates.

To the lay historian, the role of communist propaganda in the negative mythicizing of Pacelli was extremely clear, with the awareness that his public image would almost disappear during the next decades. It would be substituted by an exploitative and denigrating association of the figure of Pius XII with the tragedy of the Shoah, in the face of which he was depicted as either having remained silent or even been an accomplice.

It was in this way that the issue of the Pope's silence became so dominant, often being transformed into relentless polemics and provoking only apologetic, defensive reactions, and thus rendering the solution to a true historical problem more difficult to resolve. Interrogations and accusations concerning Pius XII's silence and apparent indifference before incipient tragedies and the horrors of war came, in fact, from Catholics: such as those from Emmanuel Mounier, already in 1939, within the first few weeks of the Pontificate, and later from Polish faithful in exile.

Pacelli had questioned himself in regard to his approach, which was, however, a conscious and anguished choice to attempt to save the greatest possible number of human lives, rather than continually denounce the evil being perpetrated, with the real risk of even greater horrors. As Paul VI would further emphasize, according to whom Pius XII reacted "in so far as the circumstances, gauged by him with intense and conscientious reflection, permitted him to", to the extent that one cannot "charge the Pope with cowardice, disinterest or selfishness, if misfortunes without number and without measure devastate humanity. Who might uphold the contrary would offend both justice and truth" (12 March 1964).

Pacelli was, in fact, "completely opposed to an attitude that would consciously neglect to make a possible intervention, any time the supreme values of the life and freedom of Man was in danger. Rather, in concrete and difficult circumstances he always dared to attempt, to the extent that he was capable, to prevent every inhumane or unjust act" (10 March 1974).

Thus, the interminable war waged on Pope Pacelli's silence ended in obscuring the objective significance of an important Pontificate. One that was, moreover, decisive in the transition — from the tragedy of the last World War into the chill of the Cold War and the difficulties of reconstruction — into a new epoch.

This was, in a certain way, suggested in Cardinal Montini's announcement of the death of the Pontiff to his diocese on to October 1958. "With him an era passes away; a story is completed. The clock of the world has chimed an hour that is past". An age — comprising the shocking, painful years of the war along with those of the difficult post-war era — whose real features one seeks to forget, together with those of the defenceless Pope who faced these trials. Soon, too, his attentive and efficient governance was forgotten, that had favoured an ever more global Catholicism, his strong and innovative teaching that influenced many an environment paving the way for the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, Vatican II partly resumed his teaching, in the way it approached modernity and its comprehension.

Moreover, the cause for his canonization was part of the historiographical knot that had already been tied. Paul VI sought to contribute to the solving of this difficulty when he arranged for the Vatican Archives' publication of the thousands of Actes et documents du Saint-Siege relatifs à la seconde guerre mondiale in twelve volumes, beginning in 1965. Paul VI announced the introduction of this cause, together with that of John XXIII, at the Council. It was precisely the year that his two Predecessors were almost being turned into symbols or banners of opposite tendencies within Catholicism. Paul VI attempted to contest the contraposition of his two Predecessors and the consequent exploitative use of their two figures.

Half a century from the death of Pius XII (9 October 1958) and 70 years from his election (2 March 1939), it seems that a new historiographical consensus has formed as to the historical significance of the figure and Pontificate of Eugenio Pacelli, the last Pope of Roman origin. In recognition of this, L'Osservatore Romano has published a series of texts and historical and theological contributions, Jewish and Catholic, here revised and compiled with interventions by Benedict XVI and his Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. In his analysis of Pius XII's case, Paolo Mieli demonstrates the inconsistencies in the "black legend", and states his conviction that it is precisely historians who will recognize the importance and greatness of Pacelli. Andrea Riccardi summarizes the formation and career of the future Pope and reconstructs the meaning of his Pontificate, while Rino Fisichella sheds light on the sensibility of Pius XII's theological teaching in the face of modernity and its effect on successive Catholicism. And from the Pope's Discourses, Gianfranco Ravasi draws out his cultural world.

Posthumously, the harrowing evocation of Saul Israel — written in the time of the devastating storm that shook the Jewish people, in the fragile shelter of a convent in Rome — expresses the most profound reality of the nearness and friendship between Jews and Christians. But above all, it illustrates the faith in the one Lord who blesses and protects everyone, "under his wings where life had no beginning and will have no end".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
1 April 2009, page 9

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